Music man sustains dying tradition
AUDIENCES who take pleasure in the range of tones that can be produced from traditional Myanmar musical instruments love the sounds of the Myanmar orchestra. But the number of artisans capable of forging the bronze gongs that utter those sounds is dwindling.
Mandalay’s Tampawaddy quarter is famous for bronze and copper works. It was at Tampawaddy that craftsmen forged the great Maha Vijaya Khayma Sitala Nibbuta Gawsa bell, a masterwork in bronze destined for Dawei’s Shwe Taung Sar Pagoda. The K300 million bell, paid for by private donors, measures 5.2 metres (17 feet) in height including its hook, 2.3m (7 feet 6 inches) wide at the rim, and 28 centimetres (11 inches) thick.
Tampawaddy also produces bronze images of the Buddha and religious accessories. And it accommodates the studioof U Aung Moe, who makes the instruments known as kyay wai and maung sai for orchestras like Myanmar hsaing waing. The artistry that goes into the forging of these instruments matches the skills required to play them.
He also works on the great bells, including one to be hung in Myaung Mya’s Mya Sein Yaung Taung Pagoda, that will weigh more than 20,000 viss (1 viss is equal to 1.6 kilograms or 3.6 pounds).
U Aung Moe, the master of the bells, has been learning his trade at the hands of his teachers since he was 12 years old.
“Both instruments can produce notes with the use of 12 pianolike keys. But the kyay can also be played with movements of the tongue, and the maung by the movement of air through the nose,” he said.
The 18 or 19 gongs of the two instruments range in size from 4 to 13 inches in diameter, each size producing a different key. The 13-inch gong produces a C,the 12-inch a D and so on. The 9-inch can produce either a G or an A, depending on which key is used. Cymbals (lin-gwin) are also used.
“The secret lies in the thickness,” he said. The kyay has a skin of varying thickness, with two areas being particularly thick and two thin, producing different tones. The maung has three thick and three thin spots. These are produced by hammering on the anvil until the hammer strikes the right tone.
Another variable is the exact mix of copper and tin.
“Tin costs K17 million a tonne,” he said. The government had set the price of his raw material at K20,000 a viss if copper was priced at K10,000 a viss and tin at K35,000. “If we use 25 viss of copper, we need 7.40 viss of tin for the best quality,” he said.
“But though the price of my work is higher than others’ by about K5000 a viss, I have orders from customers everywhere.”
He wonders how long this state of affairs will last, however. “I have four workers who can produce the 18 bronze gongs, earning K18,000 a day. When I was young, the rate was K21, and I had to spend so much time studying that I had no time for family life. But young people these days don’t want to learn the old ways, and they want to earn more.”
Looking around at the workshop and the bronze artefacts he had forged, he said, “Who will make instruments like these in the future?”
U Aung Moe has been crafting bells since he was 12 years old.